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Film review: Rudderless

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Believe it or not, Oklahoma has quietly become a hotbed for movie production over the last few years. Things really began to heat up with the 2013 release of the star-studded August: Osage County and Terrance Malick’s To the Wonder, both filmed largely in and around Bartlesville. But you could argue that Rudderless — the feature-length directorial debut of acclaimed actor William H. Macy (Fargo, Magnolia) — is as pivotal to the Oklahoma arts scene as any work in decades.

The film, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January and is now playing at select Oklahoma theaters, was written by two Oklahoma screenwriters, Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter, whose script fatefully ended up in the hands of Macy’s manager in 2008. Macy then teamed with Robison and Twenter to tweak and refine the story, and principal photography began in Oklahoma City, Guthrie and Edmond last year.

In addition to the local writing tie-in, there are many familiar Oklahoma faces featured, including local musicians Chelsey Cope and Travis Linville, and cameos from KFOR newscasters Kevin Ogle and Linda Cavanaugh. It’s a movie that feels distinctly Oklahoman, and many local residents who took part in the film are understandably proud of the finished product, which — though not without its flaws — is a potent and heartfelt musical drama.

The story follows Sam (Billy Crudup, Watchmen), a loving, if somewhat puerile, father whose college-aged son, Josh (Miles Heizer, TV’s Parenthood), was tragically killed in an on-campus shooting. A couple years after his son’s death, we find Sam living on a boat (filmed on Lake Hefner), working as a house painter and hitting the bottle hard. When Sam rediscovers Josh’s home recordings — dumped on him by Josh’s mother, Emily (Felicity Huffman, TV’s Desperate Housewives) — he discovers a sense of purpose in the music and starts a band with awkward adolescent Quentin (Anton Yelchin, Only Lovers Left Alive). There is one problem, however: They’re playing Josh’s songs, and nobody knows it but Sam.

The story — both in its concept and execution — is the film’s greatest strength, and it’s easy to see why Macy was taken by Robison and Twenter’s screenplay. There are moments of genuine heartbreak and occasionally quippy banter, and each scene has a subtle intrigue. The music, meanwhile, plays a significant role in the film, and the soundtrack — written by a host of musicians and performed primarily by a band consisting of Crudup, Yelchin and singer-songwriter Ben Kweller — is sure to be a big seller. If you’re into Mumford & Sons-style pop-rock (and a lot of people are), then you might as well just buy the soundtrack now.

Unfortunately, many of the songs come across as contrived, more worried about their own accessibility than offering any semblance of edge or mystique. This is actually emblematic of much of the film, and Macy’s direction lacks a certain bite from which Rudderless could have benefitted. Furthermore, aside from Crudup, whose performance is stellar, there isn’t a whole lot to invest in from a character standpoint, and the film suffers a bit as a result.

But because of its deftly written script, Rudderless is nonetheless an intriguingly earnest debut for Macy, another film the Sooner State can proudly display on its mantle.

Print headline: Macy’s parade, William H. Macy’s Oklahoma-set Rudderless is a heartfelt musical drama.

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